Classics Reissued: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
in modern English by: John Gardner
The University of Chicago Press, 2011
When novelist, poet, and critic John Gardner came out with his modern-English adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in 1965, his work virtually had sole possession of the field. Gardner was an ardent medievalist and a gorgeous prose stylist, and he was also an inspired and inspiring teacher, somebody who could take any scholarly matter, however complex or forbidding, and transmute it into thrilling entertainment. Little wonder he was attracted to the anonymous Gawain poet and his bizarrely beautiful work; there’s an entire strange and alluring world here to clarify and contextualize and bring to life.
Gardner’s version does these things magnificently, first with a 100-page Introduction that’s the strongest reason to reprint this edition (the University of Chicago Press is to be commended for the reprint, as is whichever unimaginative high school student who came up with the cover design). Here is Gardner at his best, tossing off brilliant observations in playful abundance and crafting everything with a novelist’s skill, as when he discusses that much-vexed question of the Gawain poet’s probable identity:
What has greatest immediacy in his work is the country: cliffs, rivers, forests, moors, gardens, fields, barns, sleeping towns on a winter’s night, animals, birds, storms, seacoasts. Perhaps one’s strongest sense of the poet’s sensitivity to rural life comes in Purity. When God, in the form of three aristocratic strangers, comes down the road that runs past old Sir Abraham’s farm, the knight leaves the shade of the oak in his front yard and goes to meet the three. The weather is unbearably hot, and Abraham invites the strangers to rest under his tree for a while, away from the sun. He tells them he will fix them dinner, and the strangers accept and sit down on a huge surface root of the oak. (The detail is symbolic as well as literal.) Sir Abraham calls instructions to his wife, telling her to move quickly “this once,” and then with some servants hurries out to the cowbarn to catch a calf, which he orders skinned and broiled. When he returns to his guests, he finds them sitting in the shade where he left them, and this detail crowns all the rest – they have taken off their sweaty hats.
And naturally, like any translator (even if it’s from English to English), Gardner must at least to some extent justify his work – after all, it’s only a lazy reader who won’t bother to teach himself Chaucer’s Middle English rather than slog through even the best modernization. Gardner cautions that it’s a question not of time but of location:
We read Chaucer in the original with relative ease, for the London dialect in which he wrote evolved in time into modern English; but the Gawain-poet is accessible only to specialists, and not fully accessible even to them, for his northwest Midlands tongue, never adopted in linguistically influential circles, has remained the curiously runish language it probably was to the average Londoner of the poet’s own time.
By the time his opening 100 pages are over, even the totally unversed (as it were) reader is in possession of everything he needs in order to plunge into the poem (it’s what all the best Introductions do – see Bernard Knox’s Introuction to the Fagles Homer). And then we get Gardner’s Gawain, full of the stately, muscular energy of his novels:
There haled through the door of that hall an ungodly creature,
A man as enormous as any known on earth:
From his wide neck to his rib cage so square and so thick,
His loins and his legs so long and so loaded with power,
I must hold that man half giant under Heaven -
And yet for all that, a man he must still have been,
And the handsomest creature that ever yet rode horseback;
For his chest and his shoulders were huge as any boulder
And yet his waist and his belly were worthily small,
And indeed all his features were princely and perfectly formed and clean:
But astounded, every man there
Stared at the stranger’s skin,
For though he seemed fine and fair,
His whole great body was green!
In wonderful, waltzing cadences, readers get the whole story of the giant mystical knight who challenges headstrong Gawain, and the adventures and revelations that follow, and it’s unfailingly enjoyable. Gardner’s name was once synonymous with that level of literary quality, before his reputation fell into its current trough of shameful neglect. And this, too, is to the credit of the University of Chicago, that they thought to dust off Gardner’s version of this poem and enter it into what is now a very crowded field. In the years since the Gardner first appeared, dozens of Gawain translations have rolled off the presses (some of them, no doubt, hopeful of the freakish financial success of Seamus Heaney’s 1999 translation of Beowulf). In addition to the popular edition put out by J. R. R. Tolkien, there have been competent versions by Burton Raffel and W. S. Merwin and great versions by Bernard O’Donoghue and especially Simon Armitage, and there’s been one other, the single best adaptation of the work yet begun – in the pages of Open Letters Monthly, by Adam Golaski, who renders the above passage this way:
There hailed at th’hall door a fearsome master,
on th’most on th’mold on measure high;
from neck t’middle so square’nd so thick,
+’is loins’nd’is limbs so long’nd so great——
Only half’v earth, twice + more a man’s height
yet man more than monster,
right upon his ride.
Of back + of breast his body was stern,
while his waist was worthily small——
All his features followed fully in form but
Wonder at his hue men had,
set in his assembled scene;
His features as freakish as his fashion
as over all, he was achingly green.
There is nothing in Gardner – or anybody else – to touch the weird, scrying power of that version, but the Golaski adaptation is as yet unfinished, and it lacks any critical apparatus or anything like the soaring Introduction Gardner provides. And there’s a very different but very worthy style of magic taking place in Gardner’s more domesticated verses. It’s a magic that’s well worth your time, since we can never really have enough versions of a great poem.